Living Newspaper: A Counter Narrative – Edition One at the Royal Court Theatre
The Royal Court Theatre is staging a series of new works from over 60 writers, taking direct inspiration from the short-lived US Federal Theatre Project (FTP) in the 1930s. Over the next six weeks, editions of Living Newspaper will address issues both feverishly topical and deeply rooted. As introduced by award-winning actor and trustee Noma Dumezweni in the digital premiere of this first instalment, the revival aims to be “fearless, responsive, inclusive and urgent”.
From its outset, Edition One decentres the notion of a single, central stage. An admittedly lacklustre musical introduction (The Worst Is Yet To Come, written by this volume’s collection of writers) harmonises the year’s discontents. However, by being set in the auditorium, this opening symbolises the overarching objective to platform voices and experiences beyond mainstream theatre’s predominant purview as white, male, able-bodied, neuro-typical and middle-class.
The audience then meanders, promenade-style, through all the playhouse’s spaces, nooks and crannies. Unfortunately, this online filmed edition just can’t capture the unexpected, intriguing atmosphere that comes with a free roam around the interior. Even handheld POV camerawork and the brief bridging Subvert interludes (written by Nazareth Hassan) don’t really compensate. The viewer-interactive segments (such as Temi Wilkey’s Horoscopes or Hassan’s Cartoon of the Week) are reduced through the limited digital recording. With the recent restrictions from the government, it will be Covid-19, rather than censorship, that might end up stifling this counter-narrative.
That being said, the assortment of short productions certainly evokes the provocative immediacy of the original FTP for the present political-cultural climate. There is a satirical skewering of contemporary politicians through Brown Women Do It Too by Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, which imagines a revealing combative exchange with current Home Secretary Priti Patel (played by Zainab Hasan). Similarly, Sonia Jalaly’s Agony Aunt exposes the contemporary post-truth attitude of the UK’s “Vote Leave” government. Amir Gudarzi’s abstract, multi-vocal Who Cuts the Cake? is complemented by Jasmine Lee Jones’ quiet, sincere Obituaries by exploring the long-repressed legacies of British colonialism and empire. Meanwhile, Matilda Ibini’s expansively staged The Blank Space – its bittersweet joy engagingly performed by Rebekah Murrell and Kimberley Okoye – is a testament of minority youth under lockdown – idealistic, aware and assertive.
Even with scripts in hand and the tight three-day turnaround from commission to performance, the ensemble is dedicated and impressive. Camille Mallet de Chauny gives genuine intensity to Daniel York Loh’s hungry for the lie: a thoughtful, barbed consideration of Asian representation, racist love and online misinformation. Moreover, Hasan and Ragevan Vasan impressively exchange millennial trepidation over dating in Miriam Battye’s witty, verbose Courting.
This rough project does breathe life into the year’s tumultuous headlines and the theatre space itself. Edition One successfully lays out the collective’s manifesto as gutsy, reflective and diverse in both content and style. Regardless of the weaker sketches and an underwhelming online experience, the fresh playwriting on offer should warrant support.
Living Newspaper: A Counter Narrative – Edition One is at the Royal Court Theatre from 14th December until 20th December 2020. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.